The story so far: Three men are placed on trial in late November 1922 for the murder of a 25-year-old Canonsburg mill worker. One of the defendants, Marcantonio Daniele, is reputed to be the boss of the Black Hand in Canonsburg. The district attorney hopes first-degree murder convictions will crush the gang and end its reign of terror. Extortion and violent crime associated with the Black Hand first arrived in Washington County in 1906 and quickly spread.
“The Black Hand,” filmed in 1906, is considered to be the oldest gangster movie. It was advertised by American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. as “the true story of a recent occurrence in the Italian quarter of New York City.”
And the Black Hand – or at least a crime attributed to the criminal gang – debuted in Washington County that same year.
Michael Carrazola, an agent of the Charleroi Brewing Co., owned a general store in Dunlevy and a shoe store adjacent to it. Shortly after 9 p.m. on Jan. 13, 1906, he heard a knock at the entrance to the store. When he opened the door, he was shot twice through the chest. On Jan. 22, Guiseppi Barli was arrested and charged with Carrazola’s murder. The newspapers called the killing the work of the Black Hand. Barli was later released due to a lack of evidence.
Population in the Mon Valley had soared with the arrival of immigrant labor, and so did crime. Anarchists took the blame for some of the arson, assault and murder in the Mon Valley in the first decade of the century. Since President William McKinley was assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in September 1901, the native population was highly suspicious of the political leanings of the foreign-born. Blame also fell on the Italian Blackhanders, and sometimes the two elements and their motivations were confused.
The idea that the Black Hand was a powerful and organized criminal conspiracy of Italian Mafioso – an idea fostered by newspapers and by the Blackhanders themselves – is mostly myth. It was more a method employed by miscreants – and not just Italians – to enrich themselves by way of fear and violence. And that violence spread through Washington County quickly.
The first known incident occurred in Canonsburg on Jan. 29, 1906, when a group of men fired shots outside the grocery store owned by Simez Piccolo on East Pike Street and demanded $20. Piccolo refused, and eventually the men left. The Washington Observer reported Piccolo “has lately heard much about the ‘Black Hand,’ and last night’s episode tends to strengthen his belief that there is such an organization in Canonsburg.”
The incidents would grow more serious and widespread. Italians who had immigrated recently and were known to have money were the targets, but not always. In June 1907, Zollarsville farmer James Keefover received a threatening letter, and when he ignored it, one of his haystacks was blown up with nitroglycerin.
A month later Washington County coroner W.H. Sipe was threatened with Black Hand letters for investigating the murder of Antonio Sebelea at the Midland mines, for which Frank and Dominic Spiller were accused. The threats were not empty. On Aug. 23, 1907, Sipe escaped an assassination attempt.
Later that year, two Canonsburg men, Dominic Foletti and Joseph Schorelli, were arraigned in Pittsburgh for extortion. The Daily Notes reported that Petro Porcelli, a wealthy Italian in the East End of Pittsburgh, received one threatening letter, which he ignored. Then he received another.
•“It was decorated with elaborate and crude ‘Black Hand’ signs and symbols and instructed him to leave $300 at the end of the Lincoln Avenue street car line,” the Oct. 2, 1907, article stated. “He was threatened with the extermination of his entire family if he did not follow the wording of the letter in every detail.”
The victim in that case went straight to the police, and the threat was extinguished. But as time went on, victims of extortion were not as likely to turn to police for help. They had little faith that police could protect them. Many suspected that local cops were actually in business with the gangsters.
The stiletto knife was not just a symbol drawn on letters; it was used with deadly consistency. Dozens of bodies, most of them never identified, were found in Washington County over a 15-year span in the early 1900s. The victims had most often been shot and stabbed, and often so horribly mutilated that recognition was impossible. All pieces of possible identification were missing in most cases, including labels on clothing removed.
In September 1917, the body of Salvatore Sasso of Joliet, Ill., was found outside Canonsburg. He was the 10th murder victim found in the Canonsburg area in 1917 alone, most of them never identified.
Dynamite became a favored method of punishment for those who refused to meet demands. In October 1911, the home of Joseph and Rose Barbella at 261 S. College St. in Washington was badly damaged by dynamite. Mrs. Barbella had received several letters, which she had ignored, demanding $4,000 in cash to be left at a Prospect Street location. Her husband owned a grocery store on South Main Street, where the Southside Restaurant is now.
Perry Como’s first career
Canonsburg’s most famous native is Perry Como, whose singing career spanned six decades. He died at age 88 in May 2001, but he remains a constant presence in the borough, with his voice emanating from a statue in the center of town and a street named in his honor.
The seventh of 10 children, Como was born in Canonsburg to parents who had emigrated in 1910 from the Abruzzese village of Palena, east of Rome. He began working in Steve Fragapane’s barbershop at age 10 to help support his family, and his ambition was to become the town’s best barber.
Although he was born here, Como did not learn English until he began school, because only Italian was spoken in his home.
The accompanying photo provided by Canonsburg historian James Herron shows the young Como at work along with Fragapane. Antonio Terlingo is the customer in Fragapane’s chair. From the holiday message written on the mirror behind them, it can be surmised that the photo was taken in December 1922, just after the conviction of Angelo Fragassa and Marcantonio Daniele for the murder of Gabriele Fiore.
A few months later, a wealthy grocer named John Tesauro was forced to leave Washington because of Black Hand threats. Trouble followed him. In July 1912, his new home in Hays Borough, Allegheny County, was leveled by an explosion.
R.T. Bell retired in 2014 from the Canonsburg police department after 47 years on the force, 36 of them as chief. The reign of terror in the borough was long before his time, but he recalls the remembrances of his father.
“Now, these are just stories that I have been told, but my dad (Louis Bell Jr.) told me he remembers coming out of the house in the morning and seeing someone hanging from a telephone pole. That’s the message that the Black Hand sent,” Bell said.
Bell’s grandfather, Louis Bell, owned a building where Sarris Candy Co. is now. He lived upstairs but had a grocery store, a candy store and a bar in the building. Blackhanders demanded money and he refused. His building was bombed with dynamite in November 1919.
“Houses in Canonsburg and for miles around were rocked and many windows in the vicinity of the railroad station were broken last night when a bomb exploded at the store of Dominic Colaizzo, an Italian merchant, at North Jefferson Avenue and Murdock Street,” The Washington Observer reported in its Dec. 10, 1920 edition.
Black Hand gang members swaggered through the streets of South Canonsburg, a neighborhood populated mainly by Greeks and Italians, at that time. They congregated at a house near the corner of First Street and Elm Alley. Local police and county detectives referred to them as a secret society, but the identity of the Blackhanders was not mysterious to South Canonsburg residents. They feared the thugs and avoided them. When bad things happened, they turned their heads. They knew that snitching on the Black Hand could get them killed.
Erminia Orsino was wakened in the early hours of May 29, 1922. It was a warm night, and through an open window of her house on Third Street (now Perry Como Avenue) she heard loud voices. She approached the window and tentatively looked out. Five men were standing on the sidewalk, their faces illuminated by a street light. She recognized them. Three of the men eventually wandered off. Of the two who remained, one stood with his back toward her window. He extended his right hand, which the other man, then kneeling, took and kissed.
Minnie, as she was called by all who knew her, heard the standing man utter the word “carogno.” Then the kneeling man stood and the two walked south, turning after her house onto Elm Alley. Fearful that the men might be thinking of entering her home, she fetched a rolling pin and positioned herself by the door.
Minnie would agree to testify in court to the events of that early morning when Gabriele Fiore was gunned down. She must have known then that if Fiore’s killers did not pay for their crime in the electric chair, she certainly would receive a death sentence.
Next: Spilling Secrets